Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

book cover

When a family is murdered by a mysterious killer, one of the intended victims is missing, a young, diapered boy, who had wandered off just before the crime took place. But the killer needed to complete the job. Fortunately for the boy, he was taken in by the late residents of a nearby graveyard. And when the spirit of his newly deceased mother asks for their help, the residents agree to raise her son. He is given to the care of the Owens couple and named “Nobody,” Bod for short, as he looks like “nobody but himself.”

In this Newbery Medal, Carnegie Medal and Hugo Award winning novel, it takes a graveyard to raise an actual corporate being, and there are many who chip in. Perhaps most important is Silas, resident of the worlds of the dead and the living. As Bod grows there are many interesting sorts who cross his path, a young witch lacking a gravestone, an unscrupulous dealer in antiques, a snake-like protector of a long-dead master, and an array of teachers. And there must, of course, be a girl, Scarlett by name, a living girl. Bod does venture out into the unprotected world beyond the graveyard gates, not always with permission. He wants to go to school like other kids, and does, with mixed results. He wants to buy a headstone for a friend who lacks one. He wants to spend time with Scarlett. As he enters his teen years, he determines to find the person who had killed his family.

This is not your usual coming-of-age story. Bod is indeed a likeable kid, good-hearted, innocent, easy to care about. One of Gaiman’s inspirations for this story was Kipling’s The Jungle Book, with Bod as Mowgli and the graveyard residents substituting, sometimes generically, for their animal counterparts in the earlier work. There is a section equivalent to Mowgli having been kidnapped by monkeys, a werewolf might be Akela. Bod’s nemesis is the killer Jack, the Shere-Khan of this tale. Each chapter jumps in time, and we see Bod take on new challenges as he ages. Of course, his home being a graveyard, the challenges he faces are not pedestrian. And finally, he faces an adult, mortal test that will define whether he actually gets to come of age or not.

There is so much in The Graveyard Book that is just flat-out charming that you will find, as I did, that your lips keep curling up at the corners. From Bod trying to find properly fitting clothing, to struggling to learn some of the unusual skills the locals have mastered, to coping with some of the lesser baddies who make life difficult for those around them, Bod will gain your allegiance and your affection.

The baddie, Jack, is a purely dark sort. No gray areas there. And that makes the central conflict one of pretty much pure good, against completely pure evil. There are plenty of moments of real danger for Bod and that keeps tension high. But there are nuances to other characters that add color and texture to what might otherwise have become a flat gray panel. These additions add heft to the story, and make one wonder larger thoughts about the limits of change, of redemption. This one is easy to recommend, to kids of all ages, but don’t wait too long. You never know when it might be…you know…too late.

PS – Disney has acquired the film rights for this and it is likely that it will emerge, someday, with a look similar to that of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
The official website for the book

Neil Gaiman reads the entire book

This Literary Wiki page seems rather slight

I also reviewed Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in August, 2013, and Stardust, briefly, a few years earlier.


Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, YA and kids

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

book cover

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

William Faulkner

It is this notion, of the past steering the present away from a true course, that drives the narrative in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, and in at least one way, it is the past that helps steer it back onto the road.

If you liked Edgar Sawtelle, the story or film of Benjamin Button, the TV show Pushing Daisies or the more imaginary tales of Alice Hoffman, you will love this book, a tale imbued with a few large dollops of magical realism. Like Edgar, Bonaventure is born somewhat different from other children. Like Edgar, he makes no sound. But while Edgar has a particular Mowgli-like talent for relating to his pooches, Bonaventure is possessed of an otherworldly sense of hearing. The medical term for one aspect of this is synaesthesia. He is able to hear color. But his gift goes far beyond the odd skills that as many as one in twenty-three humans might have. As he grows into his gift, he can hear the stories of inanimate objects. Eventually, Bonaventure is able to hear at a molecular level. He is even able to hear sounds that happened long ago.

Bonaventure never met his father, William, at least while he was alive. Before the boy’s birth, Dad was shot down on the streets of New Orleans by a madman known only as “the Wanderer.” But William hangs around, having a few tasks to complete before he can graduate from Almost Heaven, and helps his unusual son adapt to the world and complete his own mission. Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, lives with a burden of guilt originating in the day her husband was killed. Dancy’s mother, Letice, carries a heavy load of sorrow from her adolescence. It is only through Bonaventure’s gift, with the help of his father, that these decent people can move ahead with their lives. Another force is at play here as well, in the person of Trinidad PreFontaine, maker of healing potions, and well versed in the potential of most plant life. She feels the presence of Bonaventure as if they are connected by a personal, psychic tether. She has a role to play as well in seeing Bonaventure realize his potential.

It is easy for a story with a fair bit of magic in it to get caught up in the pyrotechnics (verbotechnics?) of the incredible. (See The Night Circus) But that is not a fate suffered here. We are acutely aware of the humanity of these characters, and it is their emotional life that drives the story. The Magic takes an appropriate, supportive role.

We follow the Wanderer, a physically maimed and mentally ravaged war veteran, from his constricted life in Detroit, as he sets out on a mission of unknown origin, to the point of his deed, and after that we see him occasionally in an asylum. He is very fixated on Alexandre Dumas, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. One wonders what the wrong is that he is avenging.

It is possible that there may be readers who are put off by the obvious religious perspective presented in Bonaventure’s world. Like the Blues Brothers, some characters here are most definitely on a mission from God.

Bonaventure Arrow had been chosen to bring peace. There was guilt to be dealt with, and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong. And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.

One cannot help but wonder if Trinidad PreFontaine, given her evocative name, might have some sort of baptismal relationship with BA. But take it from this atheist. It is worth the weight of Leganski’s perspective to gain the benefit of this wondrous landscape. And she does offer an image, as well, of some who would use religion for unseemly purposes.

Leganski feathers her literary nest with some lovely imagery. Sparrows flit in and out, standing in for, probably, a variety of things. Birds, as a group are a significant presence

In the middle of her sleepless night, Trinidad experienced a vision. A scavenging raven circled the room, its beady eyes questing after death. The bird spread its wings to swoop and glide, its feathers sounding like rustling silk. From the bird’s shaggy throat came a prruk-prruk call and a toc-toc click and a dry, rasping kraa-kraa cry. After the raven came a pure white dove, and after the dove, a sparrow.


Trinidad regarded circles as symbols of God’s eternal love. Her favorite circle was that which is found in the small dark eye of a sparrow.

And again

Tristan had rescued a bird—a sparrow—and needed her [Letice’s] help. It was a life or death situation…The bird seemed no more than a wisp, nearly weightless. She believed she could feel its bones and imagined them to be made of straw, all hollowed-out and light. Letice decided the bird was a girl sparrow, a young and delicate one. The tiny creature lay on its left side, breathing very fast. Letice could feel its heart beating in sync with her own

Are sparrows the souls of these characters? Angels? Don’t know, maybe, or maybe something else entirely. Bonaventure associates another character with an eagle later in the book, keeping the bird imagery aloft. There are plenty more, but I will stop there.

There is a lovely sequence in which a few of the characters incorporate some voodoo gris gris into their experience, in a very warm, nurturing way. No black magic here, thank you very much, but maybe a bit of the sympathetic variety

Some characters seem to have maybe a bit too much of a vision, if not always an absolute road map, directing them toward their goals. Trinidad certainly has a finger on the pulse of the force. William seems to have gotten a bullet-pointed memo from the Almighty in his in-box, and Bonaventure has his father to show him the way. While this may be tactically a bit convenient, strategically it supports the emotional journey of others. Bonaventure struggles to adapt to a world that is not all that accepting of someone as different as he is, particularly in the social cacophony of school, where he tries mightily to feel normal despite his large difference. I wish that we had gotten to see more of that effort. But the boy remains a pretty nifty character on his own for someone charged with helping change others. Really, it is the women whose journey we follow most here, Dancy, Letice, and Adelaide, Dancy’s awful mother, who could easily be a member of the De Vil clan, and who adds a layer of unpleasantness to the expression going postal.

Along the way, Leganski offers a fascinating look at a time and place, New Orleans and the fictitious town of Bayou Cymbaline of the 1950s, primarily. The author, although from Wisconsin, and currently residing in Chicago, has a Southern heart. She has always been enamored of many great southern writers, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee, among others. That sensibility comes through. Despite her northern Midwest DNA, the soul of this book resides in the South. She all but strokes the landscape with her rich, languid prose. There are enough overt literary references to offer tethers to other works. Dancy is, like her creator, a huge fan of Faulkner. From a different, if no less wonderful world, C.S. Lewis gets a mention, as does Lewis Carroll.

Leganski writes with conviction about a sense of god, but not in a good versus evil way, although there is a bit of that in this tale. Here the battle is, mostly, about good versus despair, belief as a tool to help one overcome barriers and find again one’s better personal paths. Her notion of god, while clearly Christian in origin, extends the concept to a sort of areligious universality. Hers is not one of those church-bound deities, but a wondrous extra layer of existence that embraces profound beauty, kindness, forgiveness and understanding. The Sinners in The Hands of An Angry God sorts are anathema here. The story of Bonaventure Arrow takes place in a universe of love, a universe in which bad things certainly can and do happen, but in which there are forces at work trying to heal wounds and make things right. In addition to lifting up some of its characters, this is a book that will lift up its readers. Enjoy it as pure fantasy if that works for you. Embrace the religious aspect if you prefer. The characters feel real and their struggles are all too mortal. The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is most assuredly worth shouting about.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

March 18, 2013 – I just came across this – lovely interview with the author. It adds a lot to one’s appreciation of the novel.

March 21, 2013 – I just learned that Bonnie made the Indie Next list for March

I stumbled on a fascinating web site pertaining to Bonaventure’s particular talent


Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash

book cover

The title of Ron Rash’s fifth short story collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, comes from the chestnut poem, with the same title, by Robert Frost.

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay

It is one of only two three poems I have memorized in my life (the others being Sandberg’s Fog and a classic limerick having to do with Nantucket, thanks for the reminder, Steve), and one that has certainly informed my world view. (cheery sort that I am) That notion may or may not have had merit personally, but for most of the characters who inhabit the fourteen tales in Rash’s Appalachian landscape, that glow of youthful vivacity will soon tarnish.

Characters here cover a wide age range, from middle-teens rattling their social cages to old friends in their sunset years, appreciating what they have had and cherishing what remains, from late teens struggling to find their way to a better life to others descending into criminality. They tend toward the edges, young or old with only a smattering in between, and those in the middle do not fare any better than those at the perimeter. Rash’s time line is likewise broad, with a couple of stories set circa Civil War, one in the 1960s, and most being reasonably contemporary.

Overall, these stories are about the coexistence of dark and light. In the title piece, two wastrel boys stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll. Or maybe it is only a dream of light, as hopes are raised several times in these stories, only to be melted down. People here feel trapped, by their past, their circumstances, their weakness. But there are also elements here of incredible love and self-sacrifice, enough to move one (ok, mushy old me) to tears. Life is not wonderful in Rash’s world. Kids want to escape, move on, find something better. But the existence into which they were born drags them under like the rough river in Something Rich and Strange. How much of who we are is accounted for by the circumstances in which we were born, the prison of class? Quite a bit.

Jody had watched other classmates, including many in college prep, enter such a life with an impatient fatalism. They got pregnant or arrested or simply dropped out. Some boys, more defiant, filled the junkyards with crushed metal. Crosses garlanded with flowers and keepsakes marked roadsides where they’d died. You could see it coming in the smirking yearbook photos they left behind.

Some seek to leave the imprisonment of literal slavery and one the manacles of actual prison.

So, life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day. But wait, there’s more. Sometimes, there are pieces of life that hang on to their gloss. Two concerned parents live for a video call from their daughter in the service, every 26 days, a shining moment. Two old friends relish their lifelong friendship and enjoy the soft joys of the now. A young girl finds peace and beauty in a very unlikely place. And there is beauty in Rash’s world, even when its vibrant presence is used as a contrast to the living death of what may be a pointless existence.

The OC’s coating starts to dissolve. Its bitterness fills my mouth but I want the taste to linger a few more moments. As we cross back over the river, a small light glows on the far bank, a lantern or a campfire. Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world.

Sometimes there is even beauty in death.

Days passed. Rain came often, long rains that made every fold of ridge land a tributary and merged earth and water into a deep orange-yellow rush. Banks disappeared as the river reached out and dragged them under. But that was only surface. In the undercut all remained quiet and still, the girl’s transformation unrushed, gentle. Crayfish and minnows unknitted flesh from bone, attentive to loose threads.

The greatest, for me, was the beauty of a lifetime friendship told in hushed tones as an old veterinarian nestles in the warmth of a moment of serenity.

Carson was always comfortable with solitude. As a boy, he’d loved to roam the woods, loved how quiet the woods could be. If deep enough in them he wouldn’t even hear the wind. But the best was in the barn. He’d climb up in the loft and lean back against a hay bale, then watch the sunlight begin to lean through the loft window, brightening the spilled straw. When the light was at its apex, the loft shimmered as though coated with golden foil. Dust motes speckled the air like midges. The only sound would be underneath, a calf restless in a stall, a horse eating from a feed bag. Carson had always felt an aloneness in those moments, but never in a sad way.

These being short stories, there must be an O Henry ghost wandering around somewhere, and if you anticipate this you will not be disappointed. There are a number of ironic, even darkly comic endings, and certainly some surprising ones.

Gold, as a thematic seam, runs throughout, with actual gold in the title piece, a supposed heart of gold in another, golden hair in a third, pursuit of riches in a fourth, a gold coin in a fifth and so on. I don’t want to lay claim to all the nuggets, so will leave the rest of the lode for those with a miner’s inclination, or if you don’t care for it, a panner’s.

My personal favorite was Night Hawks, clearly inspired by the painting, in which a woman, affected by the social impact of her appearance as a kid, struggles to find her place in the world. Must she be limited by an externality that is no longer there?

Rash inlays a few literary references in most of the stories, ways maybe to mark a trail in his woods. From A Catcher in the Rye to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, from Chekov to Darwin and plenty more. But we know whose woods these are and the paths are clear enough.

It may be that nothing gold can stay, but whatever Ron Rash writes is 24 karat and will shine for a very long time, further burnishing his sterling reputation. He seems to breathe in life, landscape and atmosphere and exhale literature. No silver medals for this collection. Only the top prize will do.

=========================================THE STORIES

In The Trusty, a grifter in a chain gang plans an escape with a newly met, unhappy Mrs.

In Nothing Gold Can Stay, two wastrel boys, stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll.

Rash introduces a bit of magic in Something Rich and Strange, in which a diver, sent to retrieve the body of a drowned girl, has a vision.

Where the Map Ends pays a visit to the Civil War era, offering a bit of good news, followed by bad.

A Servant of History is a darkly comedic look at how a knowledge of one’s history might come in handy when far from home

Twenty Six Days is the time two working class parents have to wait between skype video calls from their daughter in a war zone. They must endure the insensitivity of some professorial sorts as they constantly fear for her life.

A Sort of Miracle contrasts two types of foolishness as a condescending accountant takes his layabout brothers in law into a national park to try to kill a bear.

Those Who are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven tells of how fragile is the path out of hopelessness, even when confronted with love. A smart, ambitious young man tries to bring his meth-addicted girlfriend out of her low state.

The Magic Bus contrasts extremes, a 60s era carefree sort of freedom on the one hand and a controlling, narrow farm life on the other as a teenage girl is tempted by the promise of escape.

The Dowry tells of a post Civil War town in which there is nothing a young Union vet can do to satisfy the Confederate father of his beloved that he is worthy of his daughter’s hand, the father holding a grudge from his having lost an arm in the war. A town cleric finds a surprising solution, in an act of great love.

The Woman at the Pond paints a picture of despair touching the life of a high school senior, without quite penetrating

Night Hawks was one of my favorites, hitting a bit close to home as it does. A young woman considers decisions in her life, informed by elements of her past that were beyond her control. There is a discussion here of the famous Hopper painting. In case you are interested, here is a site with the image and a look at where the actual location may have been.

Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out is a story of long-friendship, loss, rebirth and the value of what remains. Very moving

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

February 16 , 2013 – NPRs Scott Simon’s lovely interview with Ron Rash

February 22, 2013 – Boston Globe review

February 27, 2013 – Janet Maslin’s review in the NY Times

March 1, 2013 – I found this review, complete with some fun turns of phrase, in The Charlotte Observer.


Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

book cover

I am trying something a little different here. I found The Golem and the Jinni to be a fun, magical fairy tale of a romance with a fair bit of excitement to it. But it is pretty clear that this is also a serious, literary work, raising meaningful philosophical questions, while using the folklore of two different cultures to inform the immigrant experience, offering a fascinating look at a place and time, and linking the experiences of the old and new worlds. These two takes seemed to call for different reviews. And, as I maintain only one book review blog, the result is two, two, two reviews in one.


Everyone loves legends, lore, tales of long ago, filled with heroes and magical beings. They dilate our pupils, excite our imagination and provide the fodder for our dreams. Helene Wecker has written a very grown up fairy tale, bringing to life a pair of magical beings. In doing so she has transported old world legend to a place where and a time when vast numbers of more ordinary people were trying to create new dreams, new legends of their own, immigrant New York City at end of the 19th century.

The Golem is a clay creature constructed by a corrupt Kabalist near Danzig, at the behest of Otto Rotfeld, an unsuccessful, unattractive young man. But Rotfeld was not looking for a thuggish destroyer. He wanted his golem to be made in the form of a woman and imbued with curiosity, intelligence and a sense of propriety. On the passage to New York, Otto suffers a burst appendix and dies, but not before he speaks the words that bring his creation to life. Newborn and alone, but with an ability to perceive the wants of those around her, the Golem is set loose in New York. Wandering around, she is spotted for what she really is by a retired rabbi on the Lower East Side. He takes her in, tries to get her settled and struggles with how to deal with the fact that she is a creature usually built for the purpose of destruction.

Helene Wecker – image from the Boston GlobeNot too far away, in Little Syria, an Arab immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, Boutros Arbeely, a tinsmith, is brought an unusually old copper flask. While attempting to repair it, he is confronted by a magical being of his own, a handsome arrogant, and unclothed jinni. Unfortunately for the jinni, despite having been freed of the flask, he remains trapped in the shape of a human, bound there by an iron cuff on his wrist. In this telling jinnis, despite excelling at metalwork, have no power over iron. He will have to cope as a human.

Each faces challenges. The Golem, named Chava (which means life) by the rabbi must cope with the flood of wishes that assail her consciousness from the thousands of people around her. She must learn to keep her identity secret. This includes coping with the fact that she does not sleep, and that it is not considered ok for a young woman to be seen walking the city streets at night, even if it her purpose is honorable. Like many immigrants before her, she is helped by prior arrivals. She learns to bake and gets a job in a bakery. Unable to go out at night she takes in sewing. How immigrant is that?

The jinni, taken in by the tinsmith, is given work in the shop, once it becomes apparent that he is a marvel with metal, able to heat and mold it with his bare hands. Boutros names him Ahmad. The jinni is also challenged to keep his true nature under cover. But a part of his nature is a lustful side. He is smitten with a young thing he encounters and one thing leads to another. Chava, while not much hot to trot herself, becomes an object of romantic interest to a very good young man.

Of course, in time, the two encounter each other, and that is where the story takes off. Not only is there magic in the interaction of these two friends, strangers in a strange land, they bring depth to their relationship, adding even more depth to this novel. Chava has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad discuss the stresses of free will vs the certainty of slavery. They talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.

The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot.

Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their safety matters.

Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.

The Golem and the Jinni has love, parental and romantic, philosophical heft, a vibrant picture of a place and time, the equivalent of an action/adventure trial-by-danger and enough magic to shake a wand at. In short it is everything in a book that you could possibly wish for.


It may not take you a thousand and one nights to read The Golem and the Jinni, but you may wish it did because you will hate to put it down.

It is 1899. In a town near Danzig, Otto Rotfeld is a failing Prussian Jewish businessman. He does not have much success with the ladies either. A leering and dismissive manner will do that. Determined to change his luck he opts to join the throng heading to that new Mecca, the USA. Figuring the female sorts there will find him as appealing as did those of the Old World, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Well, rather into the hands of a morally challenged Kabalist who is ok with crafting what Otto wants, a bespoke Golem, using the traditional clay, but made in the shape of a woman, and not the sort of towering, lumbering, bad-hair destroyer that usually pops to mind, thanks to early German cinema.description
Or a more 20th century version

Gotta confess, I now see Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame in the role.
Image from

Hey, the guy’s got needs. (This raises the wonderful theoretical possibility of a high-end retail business, Build-a-Golem. Schmul, more clay, hurry up.) Unwell in his steerage accommodation, Otto is looking for a little companionship and wakes his special friend. Just in time, as it turns out, as Otto, and his burst appendix, fail to make it to the particular new world he was hoping to reach. This leaves a rather bewildered, powerful and telepathic mythical creature heading for Ellis Island. She finds an unusual way to cope when asked for her papers, which I will not spoil, then, wandering around the city, is taken in by a retired rabbi who sees her for what she really is. (Yeah, he’s a lot older, but he really sees me) The Golem truly is a stranger in a strange land, but she is not the only oddity on shore.

In Little Syria, an immigrant community near the southern tip of Manhattan, a Maronite Catholic tinsmith, Boutros Arbeely, is brought a copper flask to repair. While beginning work on the piece with a soldering iron (no rubbing of the magic container this time) he is blasted across the room, and before you can say Robin Williams three times fast, there on his shop floor is a naked man. And it’s not even Halloween in the Village. Really, he is a creature made of fire and mist, but is confined by virtue of an iron bracelet into the form of a human. In this imagining, iron is something a jinni can’t do anything with, I guess like bad fashion sense. Sorry, no puff of smoke. But this magic man is a hottie. He is, of course, cut and handsome, but in addition, he is a natural metalworker. Boutros, despite the jinni’s arrogance, gives him a place to live and a job. He ain’t never had a friend like him. I see in my tiny mind the steamy Colin O’Donoghue (currently Captain Hook on Once Upon a Time)
Maybe Mena Massoud of Aladdin fame

Ya think these two illegal immigrants might cross paths? Duh-uh. But it will take some time, as each has his and her own road to travel.

If I had three wishes the first would be to be able to write as well as Helene Wecker. She manages to combine several layers to make a compelling whole. She compares a bit of folklore from two different cultures and looks at how they work in a new place. She offers philosophical consideration of deep human issues. She offers a wonderful view of a place and a time, and there is a motive force here that keeps the story moving, and presents our two leads with a mortal threat.

On one level this tale is a bit of a romance. Boy meets Gol. (permission to groan) Well, not exactly a boy, but a mythical fire being who was 200 years old when a wizard confined him, maybe 600 years prior to the now of the story. And this clay hulk is not just a soul-less destroyer, but has a definite tender side. I was reminded of Mary Shelley’s creation, the novel’s version, really trying to figure out his, or in this case, her place in the world, struggling to work out her relationship to god and to morality, and to the people around her. I could not help but think back to my Catholic school days and the Q and A of the Baltimore Catechism.
Q – Why did God make you?
A – God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him…
Sounds a little creepy in this context, doesn’t it?
As a creature built to be a slave, but lacking a master, the golem must become her own master in a way, (a Ronin?) accepting guidance for sure, but facing real existential dilemmas. What happens when the guy in charge is no longer around? She engages in a discussion with the jinni about the messiness of free will versus the certainty of slavery to the will of another, raising up issues not only of actual slavery, but of blind allegiance, whether to a military cause, a political party, a religious persuasion. When is a person responsible for his or her actions and when does responsibility lie elsewhere? (I am including that discussion here, but am using the spoiler label to separate it from the body of the review. It is not really spoiler material.)“If, by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?”
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. She’d barely known Rotfeld, even to know what sort of a man he was. But then, couldn’t she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a deliveryman might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn’t feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision—and then, nothing.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes on my own.”

…”I have no idea,” he said, “how long I was that man’s servant. His slave. I don’t know what he may have forced me to do. I might have done terrible things. Perhaps I killed for him. I might have killed my own kind” there was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. “But even worse would be it I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I’d sooner extinguish myself in the ocean.”

“But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard’s fault not yours,” she said.

Again, that not quite laugh. “Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?”

“Of course,” she said.”

…He said. “Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you say perhaps you would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he said, ‘Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery…Rip them limb from limb.”

“But, why—“

“Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn’t your own fault.”

This was a possibility she had never considered. And now she couldn’t help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.

No, she thought—but now, having started down this path, her mind refused to stop. What if Rotfeld had made it safely to America with her, and the Rabbi had noticed them on the street one day? In her mind, the Rabbi confronted Rotfeld—and then she was dragging the Rabbi into an alley, and choking the life from him.

It made her want to cry out. She put the heels of her hands to her eyes, to push the images away.

“Now do you understand?” the jinni asked

The Golem has content-rich discussions with her rabbi rescuer, on matters such as why people risk so much to have sex, or whether people need a concept of God to keep them from self-destructing. She and Ahmad talk about her interest in satisfying the wishes of those around her while Ahmad is mostly concerned with satisfying his desires of a moment. A great part of the magic in this fable is how the two begin at extreme ends and meet somewhere in the middle, growing and changing, but very much aware of their limitations.

The jinni, while he may still have a trick or two up his sleeves (yes, Boutros does cover him up), chief among which is the ability to mold metal with his bare hands, is still stuck in a human body and is forced to cope as a human. The Golem, whom the kindly rabbi names Chava, which means life, of course, must constantly struggle to hide her real identity. She struggles as well to control her impulses, in a way, like Shelley’s creature, a child attempting to grow up. And she does pretty well, whether restraining herself from satisfying the flood of mental wants and needs that her telepathy picks up, or the occasional urge to pound some a-hole into bits. She is not the most outgoing sort, and is seen by many as a stick in the mud at times.

So, are these two crazy kids gonna get together or what? Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that. Different paths, remember? The jinni happens to be hanging at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park when his attention alights on a young thing of a late-teen socialite, Sophia, kept on a leash (or is it in a lamp?) by her mother. Her entire life is planned out for her. Someone follows her home and things heat up. Chava, is not a slave to carnal whims, she may or may not even have carnal whims. But the rabbi has a mensch of a nephew, Michael. Sadly fallen from The Chosen, but a very nice young man who runs a hostel for new immigrants. Such a nice boy. You could do worse, Chavelah.

So, you may wonder, do jinnis or golems sleep? I’ll tell you. No. While not much for snoozing, the jinni has the ability to insert himself (what did I tell you about that? Stop it) into people’s dreams. At least in this story it is only into the dreams of females. Sorry, boys. I imagine that when she was writing these sections, Wecker had to struggle to keep images of Barbara Eden from inserting themselves into her consciousness and giggling until she choked.description
What to do with those long nights? Walking of course. Well, for Mister Ahmad, anyway. It was not considered proper in that era for a young lady to be seen walking the streets alone late at night. It creates the wrong impression, and attracts the interest of unsavory sorts, like the police. As an illegal, and a non-human, that would not do. So Chava does what any young, energetic young lady in the turn of the century Lower East Side would do. Stop that, no, not that. She takes in sewing. Jeez.

In fact there is a lot in this book about the immigrant experience, legal and not, at the end of the 19th century. Two communities both nurture their new arrivals, struggle to get by, to make a better life, attempting to leave behind some of the problems of the Old World. The two embody, in a way, the immigrant experience. Coming to a new country, learning new ways, changing in order to fit in, coming to value what has been found, building a life. Receiving new names.

Free will permeates as a theme. A young New York socialite feels as imprisoned by the future that has been laid out for her as the golem does by her subservience to magical commands, as the jinni does to the metal cuff that denies him his true form, and as another young Bedouin lass feels back in the Old country. You will want to keep in mind notions of imprisonment and the difference between sand castles and other sorts, belonging, community, and note the odd angel motif.

But character growth, consideration of serious moral subjects and a moving relationship are not all that this book has going on. There is danger afoot. Keeping the action moving, we get not only a look into the jinni’s ancient past, a fascinating and moving segment, but there is pursuit on those cobble-stoned streets. A person with evil intent is tracking the scent of magic and surviving this onslaught is the motive force. As we have come to care about both our primary characters their peril matters.

Not only has Wecker populated her fable with two wonderful leads, but her backup players are extremely rich. In fact this is one of the best supporting casts I have seen in a while.

You will not need to endanger your community through the use of dark magic or possess a magic vessel to find your next great read. The Golem and the Jinni will be available far beyond the shtetls of Europe, the deserts of the Middle East, and the New York City limits. This modern Sheherezade has written a magical book and there is no rub. The Golem and the Jinni is all that you could possibly wish for.

This review was originally posted on GR in November 2012

It was posted on Fantasy Book Critic on January 22, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

3/31/13 – I found a group of interview clips with the author, from Library Love Fest. They broke the interview up into 17 clips, and popped them onto Youtube. There is a lot of interesting information there.

GR bud Susan Tunis taped the author’s reading and Q/A

5/6/13 – NY Times review

5/16/13 – NY Times Sunday Book Review

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Shining by Stephen King

book cover

If you have not read The Shining already do not overlook the opportunity presented by the publication of Doctor Sleep, the sequel, to revisit one of the best ghost stories of our time. If you have not already had the fun fright of reading it previously, the appearance of the follow up offers a perfect justification for stepping through those bat-wing doors for the first time.

1st Edition cover – Published January 28, 1977 – 447 pps

It has been a lifetime since I read The Shining for the first time, over thirty years ago. I enjoyed it then for its effectiveness in telling a scary, no, a very scary story. Reading it now is colored, as is all of life, by our accumulation (or lack of accumulation) of experience. We see, or appreciate colors, textures, shapes, structures, and feelings with more experienced, educated eyes. We have seen, or are at least aware of real world things that are scarier than any fictional spectres. So, what does it look like through old, cloudy lenses?

It remains a very scary story. The things that stand out for me now are not so much the deader rising up out of a bathtub to pursue a curious child, although that is still pretty creepy, or the mobile topiary, which still works pretty well at making the hair on one’s neck and arms stand at attention. But King was using the haunted house trope to look at more personal demons. And those shine through more clearly now.

From Allyn Scura’s blog

He had some drinking issues at the time he wrote the book, when he was 30, and concern about that is major here. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic, no question. He also has issues with anger management, not that the little shit he clocks while teaching at a New England prep school didn’t have it coming. He did. But one cannot do that to a student, however deserving, and expect to remain employed for long. His little boy, however, most certainly did not deserve a broken arm. Jack is very remorseful, and wants to make things right. He manages to get a gig taking care of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado over the winter. It will offer him a chance to get something right after a string of getting things wrong, offer a chance to save his marriage, and offer an opportunity to work on his unfinished play. Risky? Sure. But a gamble worth taking. And his wife, Wendy, agrees, despite having serious misgivings. There are no attractive alternatives.

Of course, we all know that the Overlook is not your typical residence. Odd things happen, sounds are heard, thoughts from somewhere outside find their way into your mind. Jack is targeted, and boy is he vulnerable.

But five-year-old Danny is the real key here. He is the proud possessor of an unusual talent, the shining of the book’s title. Danny can not only do a bit of mind-reading, he can also see things that other people cannot. And for a little guy he has a huge talent. He also has an invisible friend named Tony with whom only he can communicate.

It is difficult to think about the book without finding our mental screens flickering with the images of Jack Nicholson in full cartoonish psycho rage, the very effective sound of a Big Wheel followed by a steadicam coursing through the long halls of the hotel, and the best casting decision ever in choosing Scatman Crothers to play Dick Halloran. By the way, the hotel is based on a real-world place, the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado. And the Overlook’s spooky room 217 was inspired by the supposedly haunted room 217 at the Stanley.

This image is from the hotel’s site – they clearly embrace the spectral connection

The room number was changed in the film to 237, at the request of the Timberline hotel, which was used for exterior shots. There is so much that differentiates Kubrick’s film from the book that they are almost entirely different entities. The differences do require a bit of attention here. First, and foremost, the book of The Shining is about the disintegration of a family due to alcoholism and anger issues. How a child survives in a troubled family is key. The film is pretty much pure spook house, well-done spook house, but solely spook house, nonetheless, IMHO. There is considerable back-story to Jack and Wendy that gets no screen time. You have to read the book to get that. Jack is a victim, as much as Wendy and Danny. You would never get that from the slobbering Jack of the film. The maze in the book was pretty cool, right? I liked it too, but it does not exist in the book. I believe it was put in to replace the talented topiary, which is the definition of a bad trade. There is significant violence in the book that never made its way into Kubrick’s film, but which very much raises a specter of domestic violence that is terrorizing real people living in real horror stories. There are a few lesser elements. Jack wielded a roque mallet, not an axe. Danny is not interrupted in his travels through the corridors by Arbus-like twin sisters. And the sisters in question are not even twins. There are plenty more, but

you get the idea. An interesting film, for sure, but not really the most faithful interpretation of the book. King saw that a film that more closely reflected what he had written reached TV screens in 1997, with a six-hour mini-series version.

Irrelevancies of a personal nature
The opening shot was filmed on the Going–to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park in Montana. I have had the pleasure (7 times in one visit) and recommend the drive wholeheartedly. It is a pretty narrow road though, so you will have to drive carefully. Bring along the appropriate musical media for the best effect, Wendy Carlos’s Rocky Mountain, and dress warmly. It was below freezing when I reached the top of the road, in August. Some exteriors for Kubrick’s film were shot at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon. I visited but did not stay there back in 2008. Sadly I do not have any decent personal photos from the place. I can report, though, on a bit

This shot was found on Wikimedia

of kitsch. There is a place in the hotel where an ax is lodged in a block of wood, with HEEEEERE’s JOHNNY on the ax, a tourist photo-op. And yes, I did. Sadly, or luckily, the shot did not come out well, so you will be spared.

Back to the book, Danny’s talent is a two-edged sword. He is afflicted with seeing more than anyone his age should have to see, but on the other hand, he has a tool he can use to try to save them all. Whether he can or not is a core tension element here.

King is fond of placing his stories in literary context. He peppers the text with references to various relevant books and authors. I expect these are meant to let us know his influences. Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic classic, is mentioned, as are Shirley Jackson, of Hill House fame. (King had used a quote from this book in Salem’s Lot A family saga rich with death and destruction, Cashelmara is mentioned as are some more contemporary items, like The Walton Family, the idealized antithesis to the Torrance Family, Where the Wild Things Are and novelist Frank Norris. The primary literary reference here is Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is cited many times. There had been a costume ball back in hotel’s history and it is the impending climax of that party, the unmasking, that looms here. And toss in nods to Treasure Island and Bluebeard for good measure.

King often includes writers in his work, avatars for himself.

I write about writers because I know the territory. Also, you know it’s a great job for a protagonist in a book. Without having to hold down a steady job, writers can have all sorts of adventures. Also, if they disappear, it’s a long time before they are missed. Heh-heh-heh. – from an AOL interview

Jack Torrance is a writer as well as a teacher. The play that Jack is writing undergoes a transformation that mirrors Jack’s own. In fact, there is a fair bit or mirroring going on here. Jack’s affection for his father as a kid was as strong as Danny is for him. His father was an abusive alcoholic. While Jack is not (yet) the monster his father was, he is also an alcoholic with abusive tendencies.

I never had a father in the house. My mother raised my brother and I alone. I wasn’t using my own history, but I did tap into some of the anger you sometimes feel to the kids, where you say to yourself: I have really got to hold on to this because I’m the big person here, I’m the adult. One reason I wanted to use booze in the book is that booze has a tendency to fray that leash you have on your temper…For a lot of kids, Dad is the scary guy. It’s that whole thing where your mother says, ‘You just wait until your father comes home!” In The Shining, these people were snowbound in a hotel and Dad is always home! And Dad is fighting this thing with the bottle and he’s got a short temper anyway. I was kind of feeling my own way in that because I was a father of small children. And one of the things that shocked me about fatherhood was it was possible to get angry at your kids. (from the EW interview cited in Extra Stuff)

He’s right. I have had the pleasure and I know. Wendy gets some attention as well, as we learn a bit about her mother, and see Wendy’s fear that she has inherited elements of her mother’s awfulness.

Not everything shines here. There are times when five-year-old Danny seems much older than his tender years, even given his extraordinary circumstances. It struck me as surprising that there is no mention of anyone suggesting that maybe Jack might attend an AA meeting. But these are like single dead pixels on a large screen.

If you want to read horror tales that are straight up scare’ems, there are plenty in the world. But if you appreciate horror that offers underlying emotional content, and I know you do, my special gift tells me, then The Shining is a brilliant example of how a master illuminates the darkness.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Definitely check out the Wiki for this book – nifty info on the King Family’s stay at the Stanley, and yes, there was a Grady at the Stanley.

I also recommend checking out SK’s site if you want to learn more about him

An interview with King in Entertainment Weekly

BTW, here is a shot of the model snowmobile that Dick Halloran drives back to the Overlook

A few other SK’s we have reviewed
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story


Filed under Fiction, Horror, Reviews

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

book cover

It is intimidating to offer a truly critical look at such a classic, so we will ease into it with a few images.

The GOP has offered us a ready-made item to begin this list, and yes, I know that John Stewart already snagged this one and threw it back. description

I turned up a visual art concept that fits in, for a restaurant based on EH themes:description

Although I did not sit for this photo, the resemblance is indeed strikingdescription

And, of course
The Old Man and the Cee Lo.

I suppose am certain there are plenty more images one might lure into our net, but sticking to words for a bit, we will pass on the porn offering, The Old Man and the Semen. How about the moving tale of a Navy Construction veteran, The Old Man and the Seabees, or an obstetrical episode of Grey’s Anatomy, The Old Man and the C-Section. Then there might be a psychological drama about a man with bipolar disorder, The Old Man and the See Saw, or a book about an elderly acupuncturist, The Old Man and the Chi. How about a Disney adventure in which Paul Hogan rescues a pinniped, yes, gentle reader, The Old Man and the Seal. Maybe a bit of Cuban self-affirmation, The Old Man and the Si. I could go on, of course, and probably will, at home, until my wife threatens to leave. The possibilities are rather endless. But the Geneva Conventions might be brought into play, and we can’t have that. Tackling such a review head on seems, somehow, wrong, like using paint by number to copy the Mona Lisa, carving the Pieta out of gigantic blocks of cheddar, writing a love poem for your beloved using MadLibs or Yes, the forces of righteousness sanity wanted this one deep-sixed:

…checking for skid marks on Ghandi’s dhoti. Ok, 12-year-old inner me is all giggly now. At some point, though, I guess you have to, you know, fish or cut bait.

I struggled mightily with this one, finding a hook, then having it pull away, grabbing hold of an idea and watching it disappear beneath waves of uncertainty. I tried waiting a while, resting between attempts, losing myself in other contemplations. Smiling a bit, but always hoping for something I could finally yank aboard. Notions of religious connections, Papa’s personal philosophy, and story-telling technique all pulled in diverse directions. As you will see, it was a not a simple contest. And I am not certain that what I ultimately caught is all that filling.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was not definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky.

So opens The Old Man and the Sea, the book, we hear tell, that convinced the Nobel committee to reel in EGH with the biggest literary hook of them all. Santiago is an old, unlucky, but skilled Cuban fisherman. He has an able assistant, the young Manolin. The lad is not a blood relation, but he sees a father figure in the old man, and he may be a younger reflection of the old man himself. Maybe Santiago sees himself in the young man and takes some strength from that. Like the best sort of father, he teaches the boy to fish rather than fishing for him. But Santiago’s ill fortune has marked him as someone to be avoided and Manolin’s parents have put the kibosh on their professional association. The old man is determined to salvage his reputation, and his honor, and bring in some money by going farther out than the other fishermen are willing to sail, in search of redemption. No herald calls him to action. No dramatic event sparks him to excessive risk. It is an internal challenge that powers his engines. But it is a quest nonetheless on which Santiago embarks.

Any time there are fish involved, one might presume a degree of soul saving. I do not know enough Hemingway to have a take on whether or not that figured here. I raise it only as a passing thought. But the second sentence of the book offers a hint. “In the first forty days…”clearly places Santiago’s travails alongside another person who spent forty days in a different barren environment. It was after being baptized that Jesus spent his time in the desert, preparing for what awaited. Is Santiago to be tested here? Will he be offered a route away from his difficult path?

The waters are becalmed. Nothing moves. A moment, then, for a digression. OK, let’s try some simple arithmetic, if Jesus, at age 30, spent 40 days in the desert, and Santiago has gone 84 days in his version of the desert, just how old is the old man? 63, according to my calculations. Possible. I do not recall seeing an actual age noted, so I am gonna go with that. I know you guys will let me know if an actual age is revealed somewhere and my squinty geezer eyes missed it. Done. I can feel a slight breeze beginning to flutter the sail.

Some sort of religion seems to flow through this fish tale. Not only are we sprinkled with forty-day references, but Santiago discusses sin. In his struggles he suffers physical damage in which some might see an echo of Calvary. But I think that is a stretch, personally. So, we have a bit of religion, and a quest. What is Santiago questing for? Redemption would fit in nicely. Having failed for a long time, he feels a need to redeem himself in the eyes of his community. Maybe not a religious thing, per se, but swimming in the same waters. And speaking of religion, water as a baptismal element is always a possibility, although somewhat diluted here, as Santiago makes his living on the water.

The old man is strong, skilled and determined. Maybe it is his character that is at issue. Maybe somehow, taking on this challenge is a way to prove to himself that he is truly a man. He goes about his business, and his fishing is his fate, maybe even his life. It is in how he handles himself when faced with this challenge that will show us the sort of person he is, a common Hemingway theme, and he does just that.

This is a very short novel, more, maybe, a novella or large short story. But it has the feel of a parable. There is definitely something going on here even if it keeps slipping out of my analytical net.

I was reminded of another well-known fish story, Moby Dick (really, allow a little literary license here people. Yes I know the whale is not a fish. Geez.). Whereas in that one, the fisherman, Ahab, sets himself against the whale, and therefore either fate or god, seeing a personal enemy, Santiago sees the fish as his brother, a fellow creature in the universe acting out his part. The challenge is always about oneself and not about the external enemy, or rival. In fact, the fish and Santiago are both victimized, together, by the sharks that feast on his catch.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is not one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

One might be forgiven for seeing here a possible reference to catholic communion and the relative merit of so many of those who receive. Is the fish (a Christian symbol if there ever was one) meant to be Jesus or some other form of deity, as Moby was?

Could it be that Hemingway’s notion of religion is less Christian and more a sort of materialist (as in non-spiritual, not as in accumulating stuff) philosophy? Lacking the proper tackle for that I will leave such considerations to those who have spent more time than I trolling Hemingway’s waters.

The writing is mostly either third-person description or the old man’s internal, and sometimes spoken, dialogue. Regardless of the literary ambitions splashing about here, the story is about a very sympathetic character. Santiago is a man not only of physical strength, but moral character. He is not portrayed as a saint, but as a simple man, maybe even, in a way, an ideal man in his simplicity. He knows his place in the world, faces the challenges that world presents to him and using only his skill, intelligence, strength and determination, overcomes (or not). It is easy to climb on board as a Santiago supporter. He is a fellow who is very much a part of the world, even as he contemplates larger things.

The Old Man and the Sea is a small story, but it is a whale of a tale. If you have not fished these waters before, don’t let this be one of those that got away.


======================================EXTRA STUFF

1/5/13 – Jeffrey Keeten sent along this amazing link. Gary Wyatt had shared it with him. It will definitely make you smile

6/20/13 – I discovered that one of the images I used had vanished into the ether, so I substituted another


Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

book cover

Do You Fear What I Fear?

Christmas was one of the best things about being a kid. There is nothing quite like the anticipation leading up to Christmas morning. And even now, having achieved geezerhood, I am still a complete sucker for the big day. Every year a real tree, the lights, sorting through and selecting from the decades and decades of collected ornaments, the gifts, and hopefully a tree skirt free of cat vomit. I put on It’s a Wonderful Life, wife by my side, hopefully at least one of my now-grown kids at hand, and keep the tissues handy. I find it completely heartwarming. One must wonder, however, how Christmas might have been celebrated in the King household. I suppose it is possible that Dad left his darker impulses by his keyboard. Did they share hot chocolate like the rest of us, or maybe add bits of human flesh instead of marshmallows. Hot toddy made with blood from a guy named Todd? Brownies made with under-age Girl Scouts? Did their whipped cream scream? Well, probably not, but one must wonder.

NOS4A2, the author’s latest tale from the dark side, takes a beloved annual celebration and gives it the special family treatment. If you like your Christmas trees decorated with sparkling abominations, your Santa more by way of an oversized, but underfed mortician, and your Santa’s special elf a rapist psycho-killer, then this is the book you will want to find frightening off the other packages under your tree next Christmas.

Joseph Hillstrom King, under nom de scare Joe Hill, is a man who not only would be King, he already is one. He has been pretty busy the last few years, writing up a storm, 20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns, establishing himself as a respected, successful writer of horror fiction, picking up at least eleven literary awards to date. Although his career has been relatively brief, he has, with NOS4A2, grown up to a level where he can glare, eye-to-eye, with the best of contemporary horror writers, even that guy across the table at Christmas dinner.

NOS4A2 is a work of impressive creativity, and one that may give you many a sleepless night, so powerful are some of the images he has created. But the core of the book is Victoria McQueen, Vic, The Brat. And how fitting that a King makes his heroine a queen. Applying a familiar horror-tale trope, the young female hero, we are introduced to Vic as an eight-year-old. This kid loves her bike. But then she has good reason to. It takes her where she needs to go, whether that happens to be around the block or across a magically bespoke bridge that takes her across geography, wormhole style. It comes in handy when she desperately wants to locate, say, a lost necklace that figures in her parents latest screaming match, opening for her a personal Shorter Way Bridge to take her to the proper destination. It takes her home again, of course. But it exacts a toll. And the journey through it can be harrowing.

Countering this adorable heroine is Charlie Manx. Not so adorable. This definitely not so goodtime Charlie abducts children to his special place, Christmasland, taking advantage of their unhappiness to seduce them with a King-family version of Neverland. What if it were Christmas every day? Charlie’s number one supporter is Bing Partridge. Bing’s latest accomplishment was the murder of his parents, but not before engaging in unspeakable behavior of another sort. He may be dreaming of Christmas but it is more likely to be fright than white, and there are fouler things than partridges in the trees he favors. He lives, fittingly on Bloch Lane, named, we suspect, for the author of Psycho. Once teamed up with Charlie, he makes use of his access to a particular sort of gas, sevoflurane, to subdue his victims. The stuff smells like gingerbread.

Bing’s yard was full of tinfoil flowers, brightly colored and spinning in the morning sunlight. The house was a little pink cake of a place, with white trim and nodding lilies. It was a place where a kindly old woman would invite a child in for gingerbread cookies, lock him in a cage, fatten him for weeks, and finally stick him in the oven. It was the House of Sleep.

You won’t find Christmasland on any map, but it exists. Charlie drives a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Not exactly a sleigh, but useful for transporting Charlie and his goodies here and there. Actually, it is more a case of him bringing the children to his dubious gifts than it is of the gifts being brought to the children. Charlie has been snatching children for a long time. So we have the goodie and we have the baddies.

Vic becomes that most horrifying of nightmares, an adolescent. And in a fit of rage against her divorced parents goes looking for trouble. Before you can say “Feliz Navidead,” the Brat finds herself riding into a Charlie lair, the cutely named “Sleigh House.” A bleak house indeed, as you might guess, and Vic has to resort to some extreme measures to make good her escape. Of course, once she does she earns a permanent place on Charlie’s naughty list. One positive that comes out of this ordeal is that when Vic is fleeing Charlie she is picked up on the highway by a passing biker, the large, leather-clad Lou Carmody. Classic meet-cute and oh, someone is trying to kill me.


It turns out that Vic and her nemesis are not the only ones with a certain gift. When Vic crosses her Shorter Way Bridge to the place of business of Maggie Leigh (second possible Psycho reference?) she meets another person with a special talent, one particularly suited to a librarian. It’s not heaven, though. It’s Iowa. Later Vic’s dad joins up and there is some help from beyond the grave as well. Team Charlie has a lot of young recruits, too. One might be forgiven at times for thinking that he might be giving new meaning to the term “cold calls” as he has his maybe-dead minions manning (would that be childing?) the phones to harass our hero.

“Everyone lives in two worlds,” Maggie said, speaking in an absent-minded way while she studied her letters. “There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape–every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives.”

The King family seems to have figured out how to make us care for their heroes, and Hill has done a nice job of that here. Vic is sympathetic, not just for her courage and determination, but for her failings as well. And there is plenty of failing to go around here, but also generous doses of redemption.

And there is no shortage of action. It all builds to a very explosive climax. There are occasional bits of fun in here as well. Hill engages in a joke having to do with Checkhov’s gun that is sure to bring a smile. And he takes a cutesy swipe at Henry Rollins.

There are some soft spots as well. Charlie is a pretty bad sort. Not enough attention is addressed to looking at how he came to be that way. It might have helped make him more understandable, if not sympathetic, which is always more interesting than the straight up boogie man. Bing is boogie man enough, despite his less than imposing façade, his child-like insecurity. And what is it that gives certain objects their magical properties? Never addressed. Hill takes on the somewhat softball difference in value between happiness and fun, which certainly has relevance to our consumer culture, but is far from novel.

Still and all, this is top notch horror, signaling not necessarily that a King is born, but that one has arrived and is ready to ascend to the throne.

Happy Horrordays!


===================================EXTRA STUFF

Hill put up a nice promo vid for the book on his site

4/29/13 – The New York Times review by Janet Maslin

9/19/13 – Dad makes reference to the baddie from this book in his new one, Doctor Sleep


Filed under Fiction, Horror, Reviews

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories by Ben Fountain

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a 2006 collection of eight brilliant short stories by Ben Fountain, author of the wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. Brief Encounters established Fountain’s reputation as a writer to watch, earning him a PEN Award, a Whiting Writers Award, an O Henry, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Must be good, right? Indeed it is.

Half the stories are set in Haiti. Others are in Sierra Leone, Columbia, Myanmar and there is even one in Europe. They tell of people trying to do the right thing in an amoral world. The complexity of the world is a central focus in most of these stories, where it is often not so easy to figure out what the right thing to do actually is, let alone doing it. A grad-student ornithologist is taken captive by a revolutionary group in Columbia. An American NGO worker is persuaded to help fund a revolution in Haiti. A soldier returns from an extended tour in Haiti with some very unusual baggage. A pro golfer of questionable morality is recruited by the generals in Myanmar to promote golf in their corrupt and isolated nation. A Haitian fisherman finds that it is not so easy to foil the efforts of drug smugglers. An aid worker in Sierra Leone becomes involved with a blood diamond smuggler, while attempting to support a co-op that provides work for maimed locals. Sundry people relate their intersections with Che in the title piece. And in the final selection, a prodigy pianist with an unusual gift must cope with her notoriety while attempting a supremely challenging piece.

  Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0. via Wikipedia
Photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikipedia

There is considerable moral ambiguity in these pieces, a feast of Faustian bargains to be considered, and even mention of God and the Devil wagering over people’s souls.

Fountain was not always a writer. He was born in North Carolina and got his law degree from Duke, then worked in real estate law in Dallas for five years before pleading nolo contendere and turning over a new leaf.

It was a lot of things coming together at once: having a kid; my wife, Sharie, making partner at her firm; me having practiced for five years and just absolutely having had enough; me turning thirty and thinking that if I was going to make a run at trying to be a writer I needed to get going. There was a sense of urgency, of time passing. (from Ecotone)

Beginning his new career in 1988, he had stories accepted here and there but it took a long time for him to hone his craft and produce top quality work. One of the stories in this collection was first published in 2000. He had his share of frustration during this time, with a couple of novels taking up space in a drawer to prove it. But he stuck with it, treating writing as a job, whether or not he was published, five days a week writing every day, every day, every day.

As for why Haiti figures so large as a subject

On a rational basis, I saw Haiti as a paradigm for a lot of things I was interested in relating to power, politics, race, and history. I went there a couple of times and at that point I probably had what I needed to get. It was some comfort to me to know, flying out of there the second or third time, that I didn’t really have to go back—and yet I did go back, many times. Once I was there I felt pretty comfortable. And the more time I spent there, the more there was that I felt I needed to understand. But I still can’t give a satisfactory explanation for how it happened.

He would visit Haiti over 30 times. The notion of going to Columbia or Sierra Leone was raised, but funds and time are not limitless and his wife was aghast at the notion.

Fountain is very interested in the impact of the large forces in society on individuals.

I practiced law for five years and that gives you insight into a certain mind-set that maybe a lot of writers haven’t had firsthand access to. There’s an almost casual cruelty, a very low level of overall awareness, but sometimes there’s also knowledge that real damage is being done—this attitude of “Oh, what the hell,” this kind of moral cognitive dissonance. These are people who have never missed a meal. It’s an unknowingness, an unawareness, that Reagan personified. Reagan was so sure of everything and yet his experience of the world was so narrow. How could he be sure of anything? I saw that over and over again in the wealthier people I worked with or had contact with while practicing law. Many people were operating from a very narrow range of experience, and yet they had complete faith in it. Their way was the correct way, the only way. They had virtually no awareness of any other way of life except in terms of demonizing things like communism, socialism, or Islam. It’s an extremely blindered experience of the world.

 By Claudio Reyes Ule
By Claudio Reyes Ule via Wikimedia

The stories turn a widened eye on this sort of myopia, but Fountain does not spare the revolutionary sorts either, who have issues of their own. I found the stories very engaging, enlightening and moving. It is definitely worth your while to encounter Ben Fountain in this volume. You may find that the time spent in his company is too brief.

=======================================THE STORIES


Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera
John Blair is a grad-student ornithologist who ignored the risks and is doing research in Columbia when he is kidnapped by members of MURC (a FARC stand-in), a revolutionary group, and is held for ransom. He winds up spending a long time with the group and establishing relationships with some members and the leader. It is a tale heavy with political irony and a very O Henry-ish ending.

Reve Haitien
Mason is an OAS observer in Haiti. He throws chess games with the young local players, as a way of boosting their self-esteem. He encounters a player better than himself, Amulatto, and is drawn in his world.

Life here had the cracked logic of a dream, its own internal rules. You looked at a picture and it wasn’t like looking at a picture of a dream, it was a passage into the current of the dream. And for him the dream had its own peculiar twist, the dream of doing something real, something worthy. A blan’s dream, perhaps all the more fragile for that.

The Good Ones are Already Taken
Melissa is a very sexual person and it is a big sacrifice for her to do without while her serviceman husband is away. But when Dirk returns from an extended tour in Haiti, he has changed, gone voodoo, religious, which has implications for their sex life. Can Melissa adapt to the new man who came home? And what’s up with all that weirdness he is into anyway?

Asian Tiger
Sonny Grous, 23, is a pro golfer, built like a bouncer and not all that successful. In Rangoon for a tournament he has the game of his life and is recruited by the generals to be the ambassador of golf for Burma, which is seeking to attract foreigners with great courses. The money is pretty good, but there is the dodgy element of working for people who are truly reprehensible.

Bouki and the Cocaine
Concerned about the massive drug-running, Syto, a small-town Haitian fisherman, and his brother decide to grab the bales that are left by the runners on the beach and bring them to the police, accepting on face value the frequent public announcements decrying the drug trade. Things do not work out as the brothers expect. There are real questions raise here about where honor lies, and how one’s interpretation of that informs behavior. There tale is exceptionally clever and will make you smile, while also getting the moral dilemma involved.

The Lion’s Mouth
Jill runs a co-op that provides employment for many local women in Sierra Leone but funds are cut off. She turns to her unlikely bf, Starkey, a dealer in blood diamonds, for help in finding the needed funds. More moral ambiguity here, and an image of a troubled place.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Che is a touchstone here, not an actual character, for the most part. Several, very diverse, people tell of their encounters with Che. Among them is Laurent, a Haitian who knew Guevara. Laurent was my favorite character in this entire collection. It is worth reading the entire book just to get to meet him.

Fantasy for Eleven fingers
Anna Juhl is a young piano prodigy, gifted in a manner identical to Anton Visser, a luminous player of the early 19th century, and composer of a particularly wonderful and difficult piece called Fantaisie pour onze Doigts. She takes on the challenge. This piece seemed a bit out of place in the collection, geographically anyway.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

A great interview in Ecotone Journal – by Ben George – must read stuff if you find Fountain interesting, and you should, a lot on writing and Fountain’s writing history

An interview in the on-line magazine, The Millions by Edan Lepucki. It is mostly on Billy Lynn, but there is plenty here about how Fountain thinks and writes. Definitely worthwhile.

There is a lovely bit in the Barnes and Noble writer details page on Fountain’s favorite books

In the on-line edition of the magazine Rain Taxi also has a lovely review with the author. He talks about his relationship with Haiti. There is a lot of detailed discussion of the stories.

There is a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in New Yorker that looks at Fountain as an example of a late-bloomer.

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

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This is not at all the Nazi romp of Bogie and Bacall fame. There might be some external similarities, but they seem fleeting. If you put your lips together to whistle here, the likelihood would be that it would be to warn someone that the police were coming. Life can be tough in The Conch Republic.

Harry Morgan is a hard man in a hard time. He owns and operates his own fishing boat, out of Key West, catering to those who Have and want an ocean-going adventure. When Harry is stiffed out of almost three weeks of costs by a boorish client, he immediately becomes a Have Not, is faced with some tough choices, and agrees to transport some illegal Chinese immigrants in from Cuba, a mere 90 miles away. He will go on to smuggle more materials and people over the course of the story.

Desperation is a frequent visitor on these remote shores. Harry is far from alone in feeling the impact of the Depression. One shipmate is a drunk who has seen the last of his good days. A sometimes hire is desperately trying to catch a job anywhere, just to feed his family. The illegals Harry transports are as desperate as working class illegals often are. Even one of the women here is shown in some detail contemplating her grim prospects after her husband has died.

One group with whom Harry has dealings is Cuban revolutionaries. Harry, echoing Hemingway, offers a bit of support for their desires, their ideals, but faced with the reality of their actions, he sees beneath the plating to something a bit less glittery. There are crooks aplenty afloat here, whether a corrupt lawyer, a murderous coyote, a tax cheat, a welcher, and the odd homicidal revolutionary. Come visit.

The book has the feel of something that was thrown together, or at least done in jumps. Turns out that is indeed the case. The first chunk was originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1934 under the title “One Trip Across.” Part Two of the book first appears in Esquire, February 1936, as “The Tradesman’s Return.” The narration voice varies, from Harry’s to an omniscient narrator, to the voice of sundry others later in the book. This is not necessarily a problem, but does make things feel a bit disjointed. Contributing to this is that, while the travails of Harry Morgan occupy most of the novel, he vanishes for a considerable swath towards the end, and our focus turns to several have characters, only a few of whom we have met before.

Hemingway offers us a look at the sorts of desperation these haves experience. A wealthy grain trader rues a decision made in greed some years back, as the feds circle. A ne’er do well trust fund kid is a kid no more, his holdings have been hit hard by the Wall Street crash and the sorts of banking criminality that have become far too familiar, so he has to do what he has to do to keep up at least the veneer of wealth.

“The eternal jackpot. I’m playing a machine now that doesn’t give jackpots anymore. Only tonight I just happened to think about it. Usually I don’t think about it.”

Harry had risked his life to provide for his family, but the haves seem at a loss when faced with a loss of workless income.

the money on which it was not worth while for him to live was one hundred and seventy dollars more a month than the fisherman Albert Tracy had been supporting his family on…

One particular wanderer in here is Richard Gordon, a character clearly intended as a Hemingway stand-in, a writer of renown in a troubled marriage, something Ernest knew a little something about. There is a local married lady who “collects writers as well as their books,” disdaining a husband who may be impotent.

Overall, there is a dark caste here. Part of that is the times, the Depression, when it was tough to bask in the glow of much of anything. It makes sense that the characters Hemingway portrays reflect the struggles of the era. While he clearly has little sympathy for the haves, he hardly paints the have nots with halos. There is plenty of hardship, and plenty of corruption to go around.

I have not read much Hemingway, so lack the sort of insights one might acquire from a broader and deeper reading of his work. Man testing his mettle vs the world is one we know about though and that is present in abundance here. Harry is screwed by the world so does what he has to do, which includes considerable physical risk. Others prostrate themselves in other ways to get what they need. Are they any less active in taking on the world? Or is it only that it is their methods that differ? Things do not work out all that great for Harry. Maybe there are better approaches to his problem. Then, maybe there are not, and the world just sucks. The world shown here certainly fits into the trope “Life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day.”

Is this great literature? I am open to being corrected and I did think more of it before getting down to actually writing, but I would say “nah.” Interesting certainly, bleak, but too much a Frankenstein beast, parts cadged together, however expertly, that make for a less than successful merger.

To Read or Read Not? I would take the plunge. It might illuminate themes and other specifics in Hemingway’s later works, while providing a dark look at a dark time. You never can tell when a dark time might come around.

PS – it is impossible, even though the character Harry Morgan bears no physical resemblance to Bogart, to keep that voice and delivery out of one’s head while reading this.


Filed under Fiction, Reviews

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

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If most people were to be asked today what they thought of Garfield, they would most likely offer an answer about a cartoon cat, and not the 20th president of the United States, the president who served only 200 days in office, the second president to be assassinated, and one of our great losses as a nation.

Candice Millard, the dishy author of The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, here follows the paths of two men, the ill-fated president, James A Garfield, and the man who would see to his end, Charles Guiteau.

No political conspiracies were involved, at least not outside the delusions of an addled mind. While the assassin did have political views they were likelier to be the same as those of his target than anywhere in opposition. No, he was your basic nutter, who convinced himself that God wanted him to take out the president. While clearly disturbed, Guiteau had an interesting past. His mother died when he was 7 and he was raised by his father, a religious fanatic, and follower of John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the utopian Oneida commune in upstate New York. This cultish group favored free love, which they called “complex marriage,” among other things. Charles did not have a lot of success with the ladies, even at Oneida, which must have really stung. They practiced a form of self (really group) criticism that would gain favor with a later communal program, Mao Te Tung’s. <blockquote>Although the commune promised the pleasures of complex marriage, to Guiteau’s frustration, “The Community women,” one of Oneida’s members would later admit, “did not extend love and confidence toward him.” In fact, so thorough was his rejection among women that they nicknamed him “Charles Gitout.” He bitterly complained that, while at the commune, he was “practically a Shaker.”</blockquote> He worked as a lawyer (which at the time did not require a law degree) and a preacher and had a rather permanent and cavalier attitude toward paying his bills. I guess in that way he was a harbinger of Republicans of a later era. Guiteau was in DC seeking a political appointment from the president, just compensation, in his mind, for the assistance he had given to the campaign. He had suffered delusions of grandeur for a long time. His own family had sought to have him put away. But the slippery bastard fled before they could complete his committal.

Garfield’s was a classic American success story. His parents were farmers, working land-grant turf. But dad passed away when James was still a boy. Through hard work and recognition of his native brilliance by enough people who had the means to help, Garfield managed to get an excellent education. His oratorical skills were state of the art for his time. He was elected to the state legislature and soon thereafter put into the national Congress, with hardly any effort at all on his part. This accidental president never sought that office either. In fact, he attended the 1880 Republican convention to give the nominating speech for his fellow Ohioan, John Sherman. But after dozens of ballots, with no hope of any of the major candidates winning enough votes to get the nomination, delegates began looking for an alternative. And thus was James A Garfield nominated for president by his party.

Speaking of which, the Republican Party of 1880 was rather different from the GOP of today. Garfield had been anti-slavery, as had his party. <blockquote>For freed slaves, an impoverished and, until recently, almost entirely powerless segment of the population, Garfield represented freedom and progress, but also, and perhaps more importantly, dignity. As president, he demanded for black men nothing less than what they wanted desperately for themselves—complete and unconditional equality, born not of regret but respect.</blockquote>Today’s party could probably be counted on to insist that property rights trump all and turn away any attempt to get rid of such a peculiar institution. So Garfield was a pretty good guy, remarkably, considering that the Civil War had ended less than 16 years prior, acceptable to both the South and the North, a brilliant, Renaissance man.

Millard offers not only a window into the personal and political history of Garfield, a literal log-cabin Republican, we also get a look at the time. One element is further confirmation re what a fetid swamp DC was (well, it remains a fetid swamp these days, but for other reasons), a place where rats roamed at will <spoiler>but if I step out of the way, they seem happy to dash past. </spoiler> in the White House, (yes, yes, I know, sometimes they are just so easy that even I, who know no shame, have to pass, but you are free to select the party you dislike and fill in the blanks) and clouds of mosquitoes blotted out the sun. Ok, that last may be a slight exaggeration, but the gist remains. It was a biologically unhealthy place. The toxicity of DC and the White House in particular figures rather largely into the story of how James A Garfield met his end.

In addition to the intersecting lines of Garfield and Guiteau, a little extra attention is directed toward a young Scottish inventor, a fellow whose chief concern was helping the hearing impaired. He had, not long before, brought to market a remarkable new device. This made for an interesting time for him. Once the world realized just what he had created, thieves, swindlers and worst of all, lawyers, came after him like a wolf pack on the trail of an injured deer. How much time must one dedicate to defending oneself in court in order to retain control of that which you, yourself created? Lots, and it was making him miserable. Still, he had a thing for inventing. When he heard of the attack on Garfield he hastened to his lab to work on a device that would, hopefully, locate the bullet inside the president’s body, without having to open him up first, a sort of early metal detector. We speak, of course, of Alexander Graham Bell, a young man still. His efforts merit considerable attention and entail a lot of drama. Actually, considering that we are all well aware of the outcome, it is rather remarkable how much dramatic tension there is in this non-fiction account.

We get a look at the medical sorts who dove in when the president was shot, some reasonable, and some determined to place their own interests above the health of Garfield. We get to see yet another example of the arrogance of power leading to a dark end when it chooses to ignore scientific advances in the fact-based world. And we get to see some of the places where the leading edge of medical thought and technology were struggling for recognition. Joseph Lister had revolutionized European medical practices with his insistence on antiseptic environments for medical care. But those who insisted on local exceptionalism preferred to leave their patient in environments we would probably describe today as filthy, and saw nothing wrong with poking their fingers into open wounds. Garfield, ultimately, suffered an iatrogenic death. The bullets did not kill him. His doctors did. Sadly medical care is the third leading cause of death in the USA today, so some things have not changed all that much.

Re government, Millard fills us in on some of the political game-playing of the time, and how it was used to generate governmental stasis. There is much here that resonates, and that reminds us how far we have come in some ways, and how little we have grown in others. I contemplated making a table showing 1880 vs 2013, and doing the comparison (and contrast) more graphically, but I will leave that for other reviewers. I merely note that such a list could indeed be constructed.

One interesting point made here is that both Guiteau and Garfield felt themselves to have been touched by God. Both had faced death while aboard ships and both felt that they had been spared by the Almighty for some greater purpose. It seems unlikely that they were both right.

History books need not be dull. The best give us a sense of a time and a place, let us see some of the personalities afoot in that world, look into how things came to be the way they were and how events of that time have echoed down to us today. A good popular history book makes us stop, rub our chins and mutter to no one in particular, “I did not know that.” On all counts, Candice Millard has succeeded. While the subject is not exactly laugh-riot material, if you love to learn, it will make you smile. It has made others smile as well. <i>Destiny</i> was awarded a PEN award for research nonfiction, and an Edgar Award for best Fact Crime book of 2011.

And it is quite filling. If you are of a cartoonish persuasion, you might even think of it as lasagna for the brain.

For another consideration of this book, you could do worse than to check out Jeffrey Keeten’s excellent review.


Filed under History, Non-fiction, Reviews